What could bring the EU closer to its citizens? More genuine openness and explanations for the impact of decisions, say legal scholars

During its presidency of the Council, Finland is aiming to increase the transparency of governance, which, according to researchers, is a prerequisite for preserving the legitimacy of the EU and putting democracy into practice.

If only two out of five EU citizens vote in the European Parliament election, how can the parliament legitimately represent the citizens of the union?

Juha Raitio, professor of European law at the Faculty of Law, University of Helsinki, is concerned about the voter turnout trend in the elections for the European Parliament.

In the first direct election for the European Parliament, held in 1979, the turnout in EU countries was 61.99%, whereas in the previous election in 2014 it was only 42.61%. In the new millennium, the turnout percentage in EU elections has never exceeded 50%.

In Finland, the turnout has been below the EU average. Last time, in 2014, the national turnout was as low as 39.10%.

“It may be that the European Union is considered too remote for people to have an interest in casting their vote. What it mostly boils down to is where citizens feel they belong. Many identify themselves as citizens of an EU member state, which, in the end, is one of the founding principles of the EU. The fact is that the EU is not a federal union,” Raitio says.

For the sake of the credibility of the European Parliament, Raitio would like to see as many as possible exercising their right to vote in May.

Together with the EU Council, the Parliament wields legislative authority, making refraining from voting a negative influence on the legitimacy of decision-making in the EU.

Increasingly open decision-making as a challenge

According to Professor Raitio, the EU’s structures for democratic decision-making are formally in good condition.

As a rule, EU legislation is today enacted collaboratively by the European Parliament and the EU Council based on preparatory work carried out by the European Commission. In this tripartite model, the Commission makes legislative initiatives, the Council is composed of minister-level representatives of the member states, and the Parliament has its members.

However, decision-making within this structure is not functioning ideally.

Päivi Leino-Sandberg, professor of transnational European law at the Faculty of Law, believes that the European Parliament is resting on unstable democratic foundations.

“Power in the Parliament is held by political groups (video in Finnish only) which have no publicly expressed policies to be used as a basis for reconciling differing views in the case of most individual legislative projects. In other words, voters have a hard time knowing which matters these groups are promoting,” Leino-Sandberg says.

“What's more, the Parliament’s stance in legislative affairs is often the result of consideration by individual members whose capacity as experts raise suspicions. This is why lobbyists have such free rein, making the exercise of power by the parliament less than responsible at times.”

The European Commission is another party in the EU with great power. According to Leino-Sandberg, the express goal of Jean-Claude Juncker, the current president of the commission, has been making the body ‘political’.

“In practice, the political nature of the commission means, among other things, that it focuses on central political questions in its legislative initiatives. At the same time, the number of initiatives has dropped significantly. Another important duty of the commission is to control the application of EU law by the member states, something which has also become increasingly selective.”

The clear political stance taken by the European Commission is a new trend, as the notion of the commission as a non-political caretaker of common European interests has been a central guarantee for European integration.

“During Juncker’s term, this assumption has broken down. Personally, I view the politicisation of the Commission with concern. It’s not a body whose membership is selected in democratic elections, even though the European Parliament oversees its operations,” Leino-Sandberg adds.

Missing the opportunity to discuss unfinished matters

Neither does Professor Leino-Sandberg consider the current exercise of power in terms of decision-making in the EU particularly open.

“The EU has rather good legal rules based on, among other factors, the opportunity to participate in decision-making and the public nature of all documents. However, EU institutions apply these rules with a narrow approach.”

“Decision-making is largely based on interinstitutional practices, being in nature ‘unofficial’ or ‘preliminary’ until the content of final decisions has already been agreed on. Only after this are matters made public.”

The founding principles of democratic decision-making should include an opportunity for citizens and civil society to conduct debate and have a say already during the decision-making process.

“In a course simulating the legislative process of the European Union organised at the University of Helsinki in the spring, law students role-played the actual process of passing legislative matters. What emerged as a central finding was the difficulty of gaining information on EU regulations in the middle of ongoing negotiations. Documents that according to treaties should be public are not that in practice,” Leino-Sandberg says.

Politics of small steps

Researchers think there are improvements to be made in the manner EU operations are communicated to citizens. For instance, voters may remain in the dark about which matters are decided on the EU level and which on the national level. In general, the jurisdictional structures of the EU are not very well known.

“I think there is a lot to be done here. The openness and transparency of decision-making could be promoted, for example, by intensifying and increasing EU communications. Furthermore, national media should better highlight the ways in which problems and challenges that cross borders are met at the EU level,” Raitio says.

The professor believes the existence of the EU is a positive thing in the current global situation. No single member state is able to tackle climate change or the refugee crisis on its own.

“The EU executes the politics of small steps. No extensive reforms are made at one go; rather, political compromise is used to make coordinated measures enforceable. In the long term, the EU has gained plenty of good results, and it has undeniable negotiation muscle in the global economy.”

Finland aims to make EU operations increasingly comprehensible

As Finland is in the process of getting a new government, parliamentary preparations were already being carried out along with the opposition during the term of the previous government for the country’s presidency of the EU Council, beginning on 1 July 2019.

“Finland’s long-term goals include developing the proceedings of the EU Council and increasing its openness,” Professor Raitio quotes a memo drawn up at the Prime Minister’s Office.

“Accordingly, Finland’s goal as the president of the EU Council is to bring the EU closer to the citizens, bolster democracy and support the prevention of disinformation,” Raitio adds.

According to him, making EU proceedings more understandable is a natural goal for Finland’s presidency of the Council. After all, Finland’s greatest contribution to EU cooperation has so far been the promotion of a philosophy of transparency and openness associated with Nordic governance.

“Pragmatic goals and initiatives are well suited to Finnish EU policy in the long term. I find it laudable that Finland wishes to instigate during its presidency a process aimed at increasing, in the spirit of sustainable development, the use of videoconferencing in meetings of the Council’s drafting bodies.”

Read moreLobbying is necessary in the EU, but it could be more transparent, says a legal scholar